Equilibrium & Sustainability

Children at particular risk of climate change, air pollution effects: analysis

Damian Stewart, 8, plays in the splash pad at Howard Park, Tuesday, June 14, 2022, in downtown South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Infants, children and unborn babies are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of both climate change and air pollution, experts argued in a new scientific analysis.

While all children are at risk, the greatest burden from these impacts falls on those who live in socially and economically disadvantaged communities, according to the authors, who published their evidence review in the New England Journal of Medicine on Wednesday.

“While there has been significant progress in reducing poverty-related environmental risks in recent decades, industrialization-related pollution has steadily increased,” co-author Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research, said in a statement.

“Every single child in the world is expected to suffer from at least one climate change-related event in the next 10 years,” she added.

Nadeau co-authored the review article with Frederica Perera, founding director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Combing through dozens of research studies about the interplay between fossil fuel and childhood health, the scientists found that protecting children’s health requires health professionals to understand the multiple harms that their patients are facing.

One such harm includes extreme heat — with exposure to heat waves in-utero linked to increased risk for preterm birth and low birth weight, hyperthermia and death in infants, as well as kidney disease in children, according to the article.

Meanwhile, climate-related events have already contributed to more than 50 million children being forced from their homes worldwide, the authors noted. In the U.S. alone, more than 900,000 displacements — many including children — occurred in 2020 due to such disasters.

As far as air quality is concerned, the scientists estimated that 7.4 million children in the U.S. were exposed to lung-damaging wildfire smoke every year between 2008 and 2012 — a number that has only risen in recent years, as such fires have become more frequent.

Globally, about 1 billion children are exposed to very high levels of air pollution, which has become strongly linked to increased risks of infant mortality, adverse birth outcomes, respiratory illnesses, developmental disorders and cognition issues, the researchers stressed.

Developing countries are confronting ongoing climate change-related food insecurity issues, leading to a sharp rise in malnutrition that is stunting both physical and mental development, according to the article. These conditions are also exacerbating infection risk from waterborne pathogens like Salmonella, the scientists warned.

Amid a warming climate, the U.S. has encountered a considerable increase in Lyme disease, with the highest rates occurring in children, while the infection of pregnant individuals with Zika virus can lead to microcephaly and severe brain malformations, the authors noted.

Examining all of these climate-induced harms to children, the scientists also emphasized the disparities that exist among different populations.

“Climate change and air pollution are exacerbating existing socioeconomic and racial and ethnic inequities in children’s health that are associated with structural racism,” they stated.

In the U.S., for example, preterm birth rate is more than 50 percent higher in Black women than in white women, while the rate of childhood asthma in Black children is more than double that of white children, according to the article.

“These and other environmental impacts, combined with poverty-related stress, injustice, and lack of access to health care, add up over a lifetime,” Nadeau said. “They lead to worsened health effects and shortened lifespans.”

The researchers emphasized the need for simultaneous action through both adaptation and mitigation efforts — to protect children from today’s climate hazards and get to the root of the issue by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some adaptation measures they cited included providing clean water to families encountering drought and water contamination, as well as integrating early warning systems for floods and air pollution. Also important is offering shade where children play and mosquito nets in certain regions, to minimize the threat of malaria and dengue, according to the article.

Addressing inequality, the authors added, will require climate-specific efforts to be paired with broader social, health care and sanitation programs.

Also crucial are efforts from health care professionals to understand the health impacts of climate change and air pollution, according to the article. The authors pointed to a variety of tools available, including a certification on climate health and equity from the American Board of Pediatrics.

“We need to incorporate children’s environmental health into primary care and essential public health,” Nadeau said.

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